On September 25, 1507, a six-ship, 400-man strong Portuguese force under the command of Alfonso de Albuquerque appeared off the island of Hormuz. In what transpired in the next three days they overcame the town’s thirty thousand fighting men, demanded and received an annual tribute of fifteen thousand gold Xeraphins, and placed the governor of Hormuz under the protection of King Manual I of Portugal (see a brief history here).
In no time, shockwaves of this incidence reached the court of Shah Ismail I (ruled 1501-1524 AD), the young founder of Safavid dynasty (1501 – 1722 AD). The rise of new expansionist powers in Europe, and their far-reaching ambitions, was deeply felt. Added to the ever-present menace of neighboring states, the threat posed by European powers vastly multiplied the new government’s anxieties.
In response, the early Safavid rulers established a strong central government, adopted a unifying religion, undertook monumental reconstruction projects, revitalized the economy, and imported industrial know-how and weapon technology. Iran was rejuvenated. However, like many other instances of ‘uprising’ in our post-imperial history, the illustrious days of Safavids were short-lived (Do’lat-e moss’ta’jal). In the life span of few generations, Albuquerque’s transgression was forgotten; European rising powers were ignored; and the central government was allowed to weaken and become passive, to the extent that at the end of Safavid era, the key to the metaphorical Nessf-e Jahaan (Isfahan) was handed over to an Afghani warlord. WHY?
On the occasion of the quincentennial anniversary of the asymmetrical confrontation at Hormuz, an attempt is made to put this event in a broader historical perspective. Its historical ground is re-examined, and its repercussions are re-evaluated. Comparison is made with a similar incident in a distant land, and their differences are recounted. The objective is to emphasize the significance of national will, itself a subject of natural/environmental variables, as the driving force in long-lasting historical transformations. At the time that alarmists steadfastly warn us that history may repeat itself, conflagration of 1507 merits more than a mere remembrance.
In his ‘Jaame’e-shenaassi-e nokhbeh-koshi’ (Sociology of Eliticide), Ali Rezagholi describes the reverberations of this historical event. “Shah Ismail I sent an emissary to (present-day) Bandar Abbas to collect taxes. Portuguese saw him off with the roar of their cannons. Having never heard the sound of a cannon fire before, the Shah’s emissary ran back in (shock and) awe.” (p. 37) “From then on, the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman fell under the sway of Westerners, and this region has been their satellite in perpetuity. The ‘open-door’ commerce imposed on us as a result of the impotence, feebleness and deterioration of Iranian culture in those days has tightened its grip ever since.” (p. 36)
Twenty-five years later, on November 16, 1532, and across the globe from Hormuz, at the Peruvian highland town of Cajamarca, another Westerner, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro encountered the Inca emperor Atahuallpa. According to Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer Prize winner book, ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’, “Atahuallpa was the absolute monarch of the largest and most advanced state in the New World, while Pizarro represented the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also known as King Charles I of Spain), monarch of the most powerful state in Europe. Pizarro, leading a ragtag group of 168 Spanish soldiers, was in unfamiliar terrain, ignorant of the local inhabitants, completely out of touch with the nearest Spaniards (1000 miles to the north in Panama) and far beyond the reach of timely reinforcement.
Atahuallpa was in the middle of his own empire of millions of subjects and immediately surrounded by his army of 80,000 soldiers, recently victorious in a war with other Indians. Nevertheless, Pizarro captured Atahuallpa within a few minutes after the two leaders first set eyes on each other. Pizarro proceeded to hold his prisoner for eight months, while extracting history’s largest ransom in return for a promise to free him. After the ransom –enough gold to fill a room 22 feet long by 17 feet wide to a height of over 8 feet – was delivered, Pizarro reneged on his promise and executed Atahuallpa.”(p. 68)
This victory led one of Pizarro’s companions to boast, “The prudence, fortitude, military discipline, labors, perilous navigations, and battles of Spaniards – vassals of the most invincible Emperor of the Roman Catholic Empire, our natural King and Lord- will cause joy to the faithful and terror to the infidels.” (G, G & S, p. 69) Rezagholi observes the opposite characteristics in the contemporaneous Iranian society: “Despite its glorious past, and its pomp and pomposity, and due to its incapability, debility, chronic poverty, and lack of perseverance, innovative spirit, creativity and ambitions in social life, the Iranian community had failed to provide itself with the requisite bases for industrialization, development and material empowerment.” (S of E, p. 49)
Far above and beyond hubristic boasting of the victors and self-loathing and bemoaning of the victims, a rational appraisal of these two watershed events is called for. The similarity between the two is rather superficial and mostly in their causality and concurrency. Diamond asks “How did Pizarro come to be there (in Cajamarca) to capture him, instead of Atahuallpa’s coming to Spain to capture King Charles I?” (p. 74) The answer, in a nutshell, is that discovery of the finite nature of the European continent’s resources mandated the usurpative ideology of colonialism, as a compensatory mechanism. It took another 500 years before the New World discovered its own limitations, and thus the need for globalization. Diamond’s answer to his own question is, however, much more detailed and covers mostly immediate reasons.
Pizarro’s success depended on “military technology based on guns, steel weapons and horses; infectious diseases endemic in Eurasia; European maritime technology; the centralized political organization of European states; and writing.” (p. 80) According to Diamond, 95% of pre-Columbian Native American population was decimated by diseases introduced into the New World by Europeans, which included smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus and bubonic plague. (pp. 77-78) Along with the Europeans also arrived in America, for the first time, horses, steel armaments and an advance civilian and military technology. Incas were illiterate. (pp. 78-81)
The differences between the two events in Hormuz and Cajamarca are, however, of existential import. Why is it that Incas are no longer, except in the transmogrified memories of some historical artifacts? Why is it that we still are a sovereign, yet vulnerable, nation impelled by our erstwhile glories, and despite our ever-present demons? Diamond’s list of European ‘weapons’ may provide a clue, albeit a tentative one. Those ‘weapons’ were prerequisites for the conquest of not only Inca Empire, but a whole continent. A sub-set of those might have been sufficient for a limited victory in Hurmoz. Eurasian endemics had previously crisscrossed Iran, and at a colossal cost immunized the surviving population.
Centralized governments in Iran had left their undeniable, and apparently unforgivable, marks on Europe’s oldest civilizations. Steel armaments and horses were utilized by Iranian military planners for two millennia before the time Albuquerque sailed into the Persian Gulf. And, ‘writing’ we had had, at least since 2200 BC (Elamite’s era). There is no need here to embark on a genealogical odyssey of Iran’s literary universe, just to rule out ‘writing’ as a reason for the success of Portuguese sailors.
Thus, the only remaining factor, among those listed by Diamond, applicable to the outcome of that conflagration – certainly not a conquest – in Hormuz is the relative superiority of Portuguese ‘guns’, or cannons to be exact (a fact that was readily recognized by Safavids). And, the price exacted on Iran, compared with that paid by Incas, was a rather modest amount in Xeraphins, and of course ‘protection.’ Irrespective of how abhorrent such a Faustian bargain may appear to the contemporary Iranians, there are indications that it is as old a practice as the history of our nation: The ancient Iranians customarily presented malevolent demons with gifts just to keep them away; in the gloried days of Persian Empires, a bloody conflict could not be settled until an appropriate tribute was paid by the loser; and, abhorrent or not, it continues to be practiced.
The life span of Portuguese in the Persian Gulf was rather short. Within a few years they were driven out by the British, who stayed around for more than four centuries and exacted their own tribute on locals. Their time was finally up. But, they only left when the sun set on their empire, to rise on their imperial heirs. Diamond writes, “[Atahuallpa] offered his famous ransom in the naive belief that, once paid off, the Spaniards would release him and depart. He had no way of understanding that Pizarrio’s men formed the spearhead of a force bent on permanent conquest, rather than an isolated raid.” (G, G & S, p. 79). Did we understand what Albuquerque’s men represented? In the past 500 years, we willingly agreed to turn over our Xeraphins (taxes, import-export rights, manufacturing licenses, and of course oil and other minerals), and even acquiesced to the partition of our country (present-day Afghanistan, Republic of Azerbaijan and the Kingdom of Bahrain).
And, Portuguese were not our only arrogators. They were followed by the British, French, Dutch, Italians, Germans, Russians, Americans, Japanese, Chinese, …, every one of whom had (kindly ?!) stepped forward just to offer us ‘protection’. We, in return, gracefully consented to be designated as a ‘protectorate’, as long as we were not referred to as a ‘colony’. By and large, however, as portrayed by the late G.H. Saa’edi in his ‘Choob-be’dasstaan-e Varazil’ (Club-wielders of Varazil), we naively resorted to one arrogator just to rid us of the other(s).
To some uninitiated readers the foregoing may appear to suggest that, in the early 16th century, some omnipresent power of Western persuasion decided to let Incas die instantly, while allowing us to bleed to death. Such an impression could not be farther from the truth. Our destiny was, and still is, of our own making. What transpired in September of 1507 had its roots in the dying days of Persian Empire, a millennium earlier. The Sasanids’ era, for the most part, had all the markings of an episode in the life of a nation marred by social turmoil, economic decline, external threats, fratricide, and corruption.
The recurring natural calamities (drought and famine), treasury-busting military campaigns, a rigid caste system, crushing taxation, and sovereigns’ proclivity for tyranny and indelicacy, coalesced to create the conditions unbearable for the populace. This abysmal state of affairs was masterfully described by non other than Khosrow Anushirvan’s personal physician, Borzuye, in his preface to the Pahlavi translation of Panchatantra (Kelileh va Demneh): “In these gloomy times that…..justice is hidden, and oppression apparent; malice prevalent, generosity and compassion evanescent; rapports weak, and enmities deep; the good afflicted and abject, the wicked unburdened and privileged; deceit and guile awake, fidelity and liberty asleep;…..”
The failure of grass-root movements (Manichaeism and Mazdakism) in compelling socio-economic changes favoring the downtrodden brought disenchantment and despair to ordinary citizens, and led to the state of resignation, passivity, and indifference toward material world. Not only that paved the way for the Arabs’ conquest of Iran, but also fertilized the ground for the emergence of mysticism, as our preeminent culture of subterfuge. By then, we had decidedly invested in maintaining an empire for 1200 years (except for the 80-year reign of Seleucids). At the end of that imperial era, we were bloodied and exhausted. Whether it was historical senescence, moral fatigue or antipathy toward our swayers, we were no longer willing to underwrite despotic monarchs and ribald elites. We refused to be both foot soldiers in the wars of aggression and victims of marauding enemies. Thence started the winter of our discontent, our state of national hibernation.
Hibernation, as biologists tell us, is a defensive strategy certain living species adopt in order to survive in a parsimonious environment, where an active and productive life cannot be sustained. In such a dormant state, body temperature, and heart, breathing and metabolic rates are lowered to conserve energy, which is only available from one’s own body fat. Growth is inhibited and emaciation is likely. A long period of hibernation is sporadically interrupted with brief episodes of arousal during which vital signs return to their normal level, and one is capable of undertaking activities essential for the long-term survival.
There are a few instances in our post-Sasanids history when we indeed underwent spells of arousal. We were roused rather briefly by Abu Muslim, a Khorasani (700-755 AD), Babak Khoramdin, an Azarbaijani (798-838 AD), and by a Sistani coppersmith (Ya’qub bin Laith of Saffarids, ruled 867-879 AD), who tried to resurrect our past. But, our sojourns were as short as their tenure. After their abrupt passing, we habitually sought refuge in our august slumber. Our later experiment with ‘neo-conservatism’ (Mahmoud of Ghaznavids, ruled 998-1030 AD), however, failed to bring us more than infamy, and a few pieces of diamond. This was followed by a rather disastrous 500-year period during which we were invaded by Mongols (1219 AD) who emasculated that residual evidence of our storied ancient civilization (the ‘ghanat’ irrigation network); ruled by men who are now considered the founding fathers of our neighboring countries; or, divided among several unremarkable regional kingdoms.
What made this millennium of inanimated subsistence livable was our ethereal belief in mysticism. We survived by denying causality, by avoiding responsibility, and by accepting our predestined fate. We learned from Mani, to forsake worldliness; from Mazdak, to aspire toward an ascetic life; and from Islam, that sufficient is God. Having divorced our past, we turned inward, and took refuge in a sublime wonderland. We lived on Khayyam’s grain of poppy, imbibed Hafez’s wine, soared on Attar’s wings and vanished in Rumi’s love. We were protagonists of a surreal ‘fiction’, eons before the term was even coined. We ignored Sa’di’s insight, “Khawjeh dar band-e naghsh-e ey’von asst, Khaaneh az paay’bast veeraan asst.” (The edifice is ruined from foundation up, The curator is snared by the terrace’s motifs.)
What we sought in our hibernation was a carefree, prognostication-filled phantasm. Could we have anticipated Albuquerque, The East India Company, or C.I.A.? And, the price that had to be paid? Could we have predicted the day a prominent poet would cry out, “Nader agar neesst, Eskandar-i beferesst!” (Nader if there is none, send an Alexander.) One may ask, has this 1500-year-old disengagement with reality been the right choice? What if we had instead stayed the course? Would we have survived as a nation? Did we have the wherewithal to prosper like Europeans? Would we have become a colonizer? Or, a colony?
In his latest book, ‘Collapse’, Diamond raises similar questions while examining contemporary historical events. He writes, “Among five small Eastern European countries faced with the overwhelming might of Russian armies, the Estonians and Latvians and Lithuanians surrendered their independence in 1939 without a fight, the Finns fought in 1939-1940 and preserved their independence, and Hungarians fought in 1956 and lost their independence. Who among us is to say which country was wiser, and who could have predicted in advance that only Finns would win their gamble?” (p. 433) Only in retrospect, can one fairly evaluate the outcome of the choices our ancestors had made. Even that requires the level of objectivity that is missing in most of our political discourse. We are yet to quit our addiction to the blame game. As long as our emotions dominate our discernment, Hafez remains prophetic, “chon nadeedand haghighat, rah-e afssaaneh zadand.” (failing to see the truth, they quested after the myth.)
Has our collective conscience reached the end of its mystic river? Or, have we condemned ourselves to eternal angst? While our historical nightmare of ambivalence continues, our resources – material and intellectual – are being spent on moral grandstanding, political gesturing and unnecessary confrontations. Rezagholi, however, finds our salvation in acquiring “the requisite bases for industrialization, development and material empowerment”. I second that.
* Rezagholi, A. Sociology of Eliticide (in Persian). Ney Publishing, Tehran, Iran, 1999.
* Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, N.Y., 1999.
* Diamond, J. Collapse. Penguin Books, New York, N.Y., 2005.